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Inside the “other service industry” with a former madam

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Madam-turned-author Laraine Russo Harper.
Photo: Jennifer Grafiada

Last week during the Vegas Valley Book Fair, noteworthy authors, professors and journalists gathered in a city not known for its literary chops to talk art and the written word. Held at the Historic Fifth Street School, there were book signings and poetry readings in the courtyard, workshops on how to get published and novelists leading discussions called “Environment and Identity: The Shores of Selfhood Writers” and “Overlooking the Landscape of America; Seeing a Thing Is Not Seeing Everything Else.”

I was drawn to a session with a juicier tagline: “The Other Service Industry: A Conversation with a Former Brothel Madam.”

Laraine Russo Harper looks like a brothel madam. She wears thick makeup and sports garish gold rings on every finger and stacks of bracelets. She calls everyone “gorgeous” and “sweetheart.” Russo Harper worked as a highly successful casino host for years, before tiring of the 24/7 demands of the business and trading them in for a manicurist’s routine. However, acquaintances felt she was better suited for the job of brothel madam, and they asked her to oversee a multi-million dollar renovation of a dusty cluster of decrepit trailers in Pahrump.

Russo Harper took on the task and transformed them into a luxury resort of legal prostitution, complete with tanning salon, computer room, staff cosmetologist, working center, massage room, pool and Jacuzzi for the “ladies” (as she calls them) to use. Under Russo Harper’s management, the women on staff perked up as their surroundings improved. Business boomed, the madam made millions and thousands of donated bucks went to community politicians, schools and parks.

Now retired, Russo Harper recently put her experiences on paper and wrote, Legal Tender, a behind-the-scenes account of a legal brothel in Pahrump, Nevada. Taken from her talk at the Vegas Valley Book Fair, the profiles below give a sense of her six years as a madam and are an introduction to the world described in her book.

The traditional brothel experience:

A customer sits on a couch in the parlor. Twenty-five girls line up in front of him, lit by red light. Each introduces herself and steps back in line; anything else – a wink, a wiggle, a giggle – is considered “dirty hustling.” The customer picks the lady or ladies he likes, and is escorted back to a room to negotiate. The girl(s) takes the customer to the cash register, the room or villa is booked and the “party” starts.

Prices:

House minimum is $200, which consists of a quick, less-than-ten-minute hand job. There is no cap price. All night parties in plush, secluded villas could go well into the six digit figures.

The prostitutes:

In Russo Harper’s day many prostitutes were married and had kids. They ranged from 21 to 50-something years old. They were from all over the world – Egypt, Brazil, the Czech Republic. She claims they looked like runway models.

Russo Harper’s working girls included college grads and a preacher’s daughter. After 9/11 there were an influx of white-collar workers, banking execs, marketing gurus. The stock market took a severe hit, and they were trying to get their hands on fast cash, so they could salvage what they could.

Each girl had her own story, like the 22 year-old who told her parents she worked on a cruise ship, and retired at 27. She had a million dollar home in Vegas, a $2 million condo in Turnberry and a $750,000 home in L.A. Prostitutes don’t finance anything, Russo Harper says, and they always pay cash.

Every Thursday, a gynecologist examined the prostitutes. Russo Harper’s ladies had over 60,000 HIV and STD tests without a single documented case.

Average income:

$500,000 a year or more, for 6 months of work (2 weeks on, 2 weeks off).

The pimps:

According to Russo Harper, a large majority of the prostitutes had pimps. The pimps placed them in the house and the women turned all their money over to the pimps. Most were too brainwashed and terrified to leave the pimp, some of whom would threaten, “If you leave, I’ll kill you and your family.”

While many of the working girls lived in beautiful homes and drove beautiful cars, everything was in the pimp’s name. The pimps beat them mercilessly if they felt they weren’t making enough money.

The clients:

Everyone: bikers, celebrities, disabled persons, you-would-have-never-thought-type couples, bisexuals.

The philosophy:

“Prostitution has been around long before any of us were here and it is going to be here long after we’re gone. So why not keep it clean and safe fore everyone. What we need to do is regulate it. Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s going away.”

From Legal Tender

“The ladies who worked in the brothel were indeed dream makers. They weren’t giving fifty-dollar blowjobs in someone’s back seat or giving twenty-dollar hand jobs in an alley. They fulfilled fantasies. They took you to heights you’ve always dreamed about experiencing. They role-played and pampered and catered.

“And the customers who came to the brothel were, for the most part, successful members of society. They weren’t derelicts who couldn’t get laid anywhere else. They were people who were looking for something a bit more; more exciting, more daring, more intriguing, more thrilling.”

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